12 October 2014

Don't Underestimate the Power of the Dark Side...PERU (9th Sept.)

After our bumper day in the Andean foothills, there were two options: 1) Accept your good fortune with a smile, and retire for the night; or 2) Get greedy and try to extend that luck to a bit of night birding near the lodge. We chose the latter! I am an owl fan of note, so this trip, which ended up with 12 different owls seen for the group, was ideally suited; thus my commitment to go out owling was never in doubt. Thankfully, Mark and Rick (the two tour participants), were dog-tired, like me, but just could not say no! The excellent local guide Carlos advised us that anything prior to 10PM was not worth it, so we it was a super-long day or nothing. We chose the tortuous option! I could not figure out way this late timing was important, as, traditionally, when searching for owls, when tapes are played to get a response, just after dusk or just before dawn (on clear nights) are usually the most fruitful. A quick scout for birds around the lodge earlier that evening failed to produce the Rufous Nightjar or the Spot-tailed Nightjar we'd seen the evening before, during an evening where clouds regularly featured in the night sky, compared with the beautiful clear night of the "Supermoon" the evening before. My fear was, that this night was simply not a good night for night birds. Anyway, we gathered by the bus at 10PM ready to launch another night foray, with plenty of cloud still present above, interspersed with periods of starry skies. Not perfect, but not disastrous either. Our first owl search was not what I was expecting. I was thinking that the guide would lead us to a spot and suggest I play a call for the stakeout species. But no, we proceeded five minutes drive from the lodge to a large power plant of some sort, sprinkled with many bright street lamps. Here, the guide Carlos advised us to check the posts by the lights for any owls. No recordings were played, but no owls were seen either. We swiftly moved, vowing to check the posts on our return journey. Next up, we scanned the cables along this far from quiet highway for any sign of a Striped Owl. Sadly this impressive owl did not feature either. Owls 2-US 0; the owls were winning this battle hands down. I was beginning to feel decidedly guilty at having dangled the "owl carrot" to the group, only to result in a tortuously late night with little payoff. Still, Carlos seemed unperturbed, and his continuing enthusiasm, and optimism was infectious; my dark thoughts of failed returns were kept locked inside my head! The next stop in this owl quest was another unlikely venue. We moved into the outskirts of the noisy city of Moyobamba, which could rightly have laid claim to the title "the city that never sleeps" at this time; cars and motorbikes zoomed around the city, heavy-bass, pumping disco music seemed to burst from every few houses, and the distinct lack of any large patch of bird habitat, all seemed the very antithesis of what you need to see owls. Under Carlos's instructions we left the bus, accompanied by the ever-present sounds of Latino dance music coming from across the street, and scanned a large university grounds for sign of our next quarry. There were a few scattered, tall Eucalypt trees bordering the building, but nothing in the way of what I would label decent habitat. Carlos expanded his information to us; gesturing to a large red-and-white cellphone antenna, he indicated our target owl, the magnificent Stygian Owl, regularly chooses to sit on the large aerial. However, it was abundantly clear the large red-and-white structure was completely owl-less. We walked around the border of the property scanning the few trees on its fringe with a spotlight for any sign large, reflecting red eyes staring back at us, but found nothing. Carlos led us to the busiest street that bordered the property, and suggested I play the tape (obviously just loud enough to be heard above the continuous dance music present), and told us to keep an eye for a large owl flying from one thin strip of trees to another. With a distinct lack of belief that any owl would respond while the town was still deep within party mode, I followed his request all the same. Amazingly, within just a few seconds of play, a huge owl sailed overhead, lit up by the spotlight, and glided onto an open branch above us! We watched, quite literally open-mouthed, as the Stygian Owl called back and glared at us from its lofty perch, accompanied by the unwanted sound of Latino club music! A curious and unlikely scene for seeing a rarely seen owl. Carlos told us that the owls had been discovered here in just the last few years, at an elevation fully 1000m lower than their stated altitudinal range in the excellent Peru field guide. Stygian means "Dark" and the owl certainly appeared that; dark and menacing.

After enjoying excellent views and taking a few snapshots, we headed back towards the lodge, once more failing to find a Striped Owl on the return journey. A short time before turning back into the lodge, we stopped again at the plant with the bright street lamps, but found the posts still missing any owls. Rick glimpsed an owl, which gave us renewed hope, and moments later a Black-banded Owl (sadly missing an eye), sitting right out in the open next to one of the bright street lamps! Another unlikely setting for a normally tricky owl species! As we drove back the short distance to the lodge, Carlos lit up another owl-Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl-sitting on a fencepost to complete a three-owl night, all seen within one hour! A remarkable end, to a remarkable day.

Next stop was Abra Patricia, the cloudforest realm of the rare and much wanted Long-whiskered Owlet...

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